Undaunted despite defeat


A small temple in Deori on the Ranchi-Jamshedpur national highway no. 33 is a busy tourist spot. Red and yellow threads tied around trees for people's wishes to come true complement the colourful temple facade. It's famous for a rare, undated four-handed idol of Goddess Durga but local tour operators often refer to it as "Dhoni ka temple" to add glamour.

It's a spot cricketer Mahendra Singh Dhoni has been visiting since his teens. Its priests and flower shops in the vicinity are keenly awaiting the India captain's arrival ahead of the January 19 ODI in Ranchi. Dhoni has said in the past that the deity's blessings have helped him rise to lofty heights. It's difficult to fathom how a pragmatic man, who decides everything based on logic, can be so deeply religious-even to the extent of offering animal sacrifice sometimes.

But that's typical Dhoni. He won't wake up in the early hours like Sachin Tendulkar to satisfy his urge to race fast cars. Dhoni will just put on a helmet and go driving through the streets of Ranchi or Chennai enjoying the helplessness of policemen trying to tail his Hayabusa on 100cc bikes-sharing a laugh about it with friends later.

While India fans were still in shock over the recent home series loss to England, he took to Twitter to express deep sorrow over the loss of Sam, his pet German Shepherd. He has openly expressed his desire to serve the Army after retirement and took the honorary position of Lt-Colonel even as he declined an offer to be part of their annual parade. He angered the Government by skipping the Padma awards ceremony-busy, allegedly, with commercial engagements.

There are two facets to Dhoni. A captain protective of his team and players, preferring not to expose them when the team loses but always happy to let the best player get the accolades. But while he's busy building a new team for his World Cup title defence in 2015, he's also ruthlessly clearing long-standing reputations like cobwebs. Dhoni's grey sideburns are already talk of the town, and he says, "It's the result of facing so much pressure and suppressing it under a calm exterior." But captain Dhoni has several other streaks of grey. He's enjoying the uninterrupted patronage of bcci President N. Srinivasan, coincidentally also the franchise owner of the Dhoni-led Chennai Super Kings. The captain has survived two whitewashes in England and Australia, a humiliating home Test series loss to England and a home ODI series defeat to Pakistan. He has proved he's untouchable.

LEGENDARY GIANT-KILLER

For a nation starved of great victories and obsessed with minute statistical details, Dhoni gave India its first ever World T20 championship, a rare ODI series victory in Australia, the first ever ODI series win in Sri Lanka, the number-one Test ranking and, of course, the World Cup after 28 long years. That makes him nothing short of a legend in Indian cricket.

But, at the same time, all the other legends who have lent a big hand in his achievements have fallen by the wayside. Dhoni's name has done the rounds whenever a legendary player such as Sourav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman, Sachin Tendulkar or Virender Sehwag has retired or been dropped. That qualifies him as not just a giant but also a giant-killer.

Ganguly was left out of the 2008 CB series in Australia, forcing then Cricket Association of Bengal president Prasun Mukherjee to openly question Dhoni's role. According to sources, Laxman announced his retirement despite being selected for the New Zealand Test series because Dhoni, according to sources, wanted him to announce his retirement plan before the series or risk being left out. Laxman added to the intrigue by saying he could not get through to Dhoni over the phone. The same week, he invited Team India members for dinner at home and left Dhoni out of the guest list.

Tendulkar announced his ODI retirement just minutes before the selectors met to pick the squad for the Pakistan series, and released a statement to that effect, adding it was time to build a team for the future. Former Pakistan great Hanif Mohammad, during the third ODI in Delhi, questioned the timing of Tendulkar's retirement, suggesting there was more to it than what meets the eye. Reports of a Sehwag-Dhoni rift have surfaced often and the skipper has never shied away from dropping the opening batsman from his playing XI at the first opportunity.

CURIOUS CASE OF VICE-CAPTAINCY

Apart from their being vital cogs in the Team India line-up, another interesting aspect binds Laxman, Sehwag, Yuvraj Singh, Suresh Raina and Gautam Gambhir. They have all been vice-captain at some point under Dhoni and even challenged him as contenders with good shows captaining IPL sides. By coincidence or by design, they have all been systematically dumped from the team.

Of all potential captains Team India developed under Dhoni, only Gambhir has managed to survive in all formats of the game. Laxman was pushed into retirement. Yuvraj's Test career is firmly over and his ODI career is hanging by a thread. Raina's place in the XI has been repeatedly questioned and there's no immediate chance of a Test recall. Sehwag, the most recent contender to assume Test captaincy-as revealed by ousted selector Mohinder Amarnath in December-has been dropped for the first three of the forthcoming England ODIs. Gambhir, Dhoni's potential ODI successor under the former selection panel, has been struggling to justify his place in the team.

Dhoni started his famous rotation of Tendulkar, Sehwag and Gambhir during the Australia tour in February-March 2012 immediately after he lost the Test series and the selectors first contemplated a change of captain. Immediately, in Bangladesh at the Asia Cup, Sehwag was dropped and Gambhir demoted from vice-captain. Suddenly, Virat Kohli was elevated as Dhoni's deputy. Sources say it was a tactical decision to ensure no immediate threat to Dhoni's captaincy as Kohli was too young then to lead.

ONE-MAN SELECTION PANEL

Team sources say Dhoni is a one-man selection panel. The point is illustrated by how a visibly underprepared R.P. Singh gets into the Test team mid-tour during the England 2011 series or how Piyush Chawla keeps returning despite doing nothing of note or how Ravindra Jadeja suddenly becomes a constant in all formats. "The problem is Dhoni has barely played domestic cricket and doesn't know the players. So he keeps asking for the same guys," says former spinner Maninder Singh.

Much of Dhoni's strength, insiders say, comes from Srinivasan's backing. Such a rapport is not unheard of in Indian cricket. Ganguly and Jagmohan Dalmiya had formed a potent combination as captain and chief administrator until they fell out.

But what happens beyond September 2014, when Srinivasan hands over control of bcci to his successor? With the World Cup scheduled for February-March 2015, will the Srinivasan-Dhoni combine continue to decide Team India's future? Will Dhoni be at the vanguard of the defence of the hard-won title? It is unlikely that there will be a twist in the Dhoni fairytale.

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